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The Trail Your Digital Data Leaves

A basic understanding of personal security on the internet has never been so important. Follow the links at the end of this article for internet security information.

As a Cybersmiler, I think daily about my personal identity on the web; that which I chose to share or not share on social media. Despite disclaimers that “RT doesn’t = endorsement” and “like doesn’t mean I really love what you’re sharing,” or the infamous “opinions are my own,” I try to always be conscious and cautious about what I post, like, or share. But what about my unconscious online activity? I hardly ever give that a thought.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) report estimates that 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020. The same report states that the amount of data stored on the internet is predicted to grow roughly 44 times larger in 2020 than it was in 2009. So, it shouldn’t come as a shock that internet revenue has also grown. In 2013, it hit $42.8 billion in the U.S. alone but where is this revenue coming from when the internet is “free”?

Our personal data is invaluable to companies. They track our retweets, likes and dislikes, and even what websites we visit. Did you know that some mobile network providers work with restaurant advertisers to entice you in based on your exact location, the time of day, and that you like the type of food they make? But how did my mobile know all this (and is that why I got a “buy one, get one” pizza coupon)? Simply, yes: companies sell the data they collect about us.

If you’re like me, you may be asking, “Why would someone do that?” One view is that such sharing of information helps boost retail economies and improves our own experiences online; your content is curated to your likes and dislikes (quite literally). Others claim that the use of information without consent is a violation of privacy. It’s a double-edged sword, so to speak, because knowledge/data is power. So who is right in the battle of profit versus privacy? Well, it depends who you ask.

“Data, data everywhere/Nor any a drop to drink”… Until now. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge (well, sort of)

In March, the U.S. House voted on a measure (technically known as “a joint resolution of congressional disapproval”) that would empower internet service providers (ISPs) to freely share private user data with advertisers. This measure effectively repeals privacy regulations the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) introduced in 2016 under President Obama. The FCC rules, which were designed to protect consumers, required ISPs to seek consent from their customers in order to share their sensitive private data. For those of us who use the internet this is a big deal. Why?

Under this repeal, ISPs would have carte-blanche to monitor our behavior online and, without permission, use our personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads. Here is an idea of that which is up for sale:
• Your browsing habits (yes, data on those embarrassing sites)
• Your mobile app usage history (including how often you frequent Facebook, Twitter, and even dating apps)
• Location data
• Social security numbers (one of the most sought after pieces of personal data by identity thieves)

Search engines (e.g., Google) and streaming-video sites (e.g., YouTube) already collect usage data, but ISPs know more about you because they see all of the sites you visit. While we can easily choose not to visit websites with lenient privacy policies, it is far more difficult to choose a different ISP; many people who will be affected by this in the U.S. only have one or two ISP broadband companies in their cities from which to choose.

“Until You Make Your Unconscious Conscious…” – Carl Jung

Like many of you, I have been on the wrong end of comments such as, “I can’t believe you liked that.” Comments which have made me even more conscious of the fact that people pay attention to my “hearts” on Instagram or the “likes” on Facebook. But such signs of approval are intentional (in most cases); I meant for someone to see I liked a photo. Personally, I have never thought to post a screenshot of my Google search history for immense fear of being ridiculed. And, I never thought I would be faced with the possibility people would intentionally see what’s contained therein; that I oft forget how to spell certain words, or that I searched for a new pair of pants last night. But with this measured passed by the U.S. Congress (it is currently awaiting President Trump’s signature), you all may soon see such things about fellow Cybersmilers. Of course, that is an extreme example but isn’t that what we are here to discuss and share? – The extremes to which some will go to ridicule, hurt, and cyberbully us?

Sometimes when we are not consciously posting or liking things on an app like Twitter or Facebook, we forget that we are still leaving unconscious data breadcrumbs around the internet: our location, even our last purchase. No one really tells us this either. I first learned about this topic (the aforementioned Congressional action) because I frequently read and think about cybersecurity and my privacy online. I take my privacy, both on and offline, very seriously and it’s why I seldom post “selfies” (that, and I was cyberbullied for doing so). We go to conscious and considerable lengths to protect our social media profiles, but our personal online presence is now in the hands of advertisers and potentially, hackers, thieves, and even cyberbullies.

A huge thank you to Laura (@la_le) for this amazing contribution and also for her ongoing support for our work.

If you are worried about your personal security online you can email our advisors on help@cybersmile.org or alternatively you can check out our Help Centre for lots of useful information about internet security and how to live a life of digital harmony! For more information about Cybersmile and the work we do, please explore the following suggestions.